From a discussion about one of the factors in the leading cause of death among men 18 to 44 years old is suicide — the role of loneliness, resentment or disconnectedness in a world more technologically interconnected than ever before: From The Drum, an excerpt from a former white nationalist, someone who grew up in an alcoholic home, was a bully all his teen years, and was attracted to white nationism through skinheads at 16 years of age:
Arno Michaelis, former white supremacist, at about 25 minutes into the video:
. . . When people like a Jewish boss or a lesbian supervisor or black and Latino co-workers defied my worldview by just interacting with me human to human it really drove home how wrong I was. Our society has a habit of rejecting anyone that we find distasteful. It’s very easy to be like, Unfollow, This person is now shut out of my life. They’re off all my social media channels.
There is a difference between listening to someone and giving someone a platform to spread their hate. The difference between those two things is compassion. If you do things in a trauma?-informed way, which means if you see someone behaving poorly you don’t say What’s wrong with them? you say What happened to them? As far as I am concerned the political extremism of one flavour drives political extremism of the other flavour. It’s important that everyone really commits to an active practice of seeing themselves in others and seeing others in themselves. All the more so when it’s someone who doesn’t look like you, or think like you – that’s when that practice becomes most important and most powerful.
They’re recruiting. Superficially relatively innocuous-looking groups like the Lads Society are their first ports of call. But their conversations have been infiltrated so we can be alerted to the threat:
Trying to understand what is happening in the United States has led me to new areas of reading, including The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab. The opening paragraph of the Preface to that book:
This particular analysis of right-wing extremism in America began to emerge in reaction to the McCarthyism of the early 1950’s. Lipset’s article attempting to place that phenomenon in a historical and sociological context was the first to apply the concept of the “radical right” to American social movements.1 That article briefly surveyed some of the earlier movements from the Know-Nothings to the Ku Klux Klan, and pointed to ways in which American values made for a greater degree of political intolerance here than in other relatively stable democratic countries. (p.xv)
1. S. M. Lipset, “The Radical Right,” British Journal of Sociology, I (June1955), pp. 176-209 . . .
So back to the 1955 article I went as my starting point. The first part of the article posits several “sources of right-wing extremism in American society”.
Status and Class Politics
Class Politics: During periods of economic depression political movements or parties seeking economic reform, a redistribution of income, have gained the upper hand.
Status Politics: Periods of prosperity, full employment, with many able to improve their economic position, we have the rise of those seeking to preserve the status quo. As groups aspire to maintain or improve their social status conflicts ensue. Some groups feel frustrated at being excluded and others feel their status is threatened by new aspirants.
For a clear analysis of the 2016 neo-liberal context of the rise of Trump see the posts on Nancy Fraser’s article.
The discussion is about status politics. (Of course, in 2016 we had economic growth but at the same time many were being left behind. This was surely a significant difference from 1955.)
The political consequences of status frustrations differ considerably from those resulting from economic deprivation, in that there is no clear-cut political solution for the problem. There is little or nothing which a government can do to relieve these anxieties. It is not surprising, therefore, that the political movements which have successfully appealed to status resentments have been irrational in character, that they focus on attacking a scapegoat, which con- veniently symbolizes the threat perceived by their supporters.
Who are the scapegoats? They are ever the same . . .
Historically, in the United States, the most common scapegoats have been the minority ethnic or religious groups. Such groups have repeatedly been victims of political aggression in periods of prosperity for it is precisely in these times that status anxieties are most pressing.
Compare today, immigrants especially from the south, and Muslims.
Latter day Know-Nothingism (A.P.A.ism) in the west, was perhaps due as well to envy of the growing social and industrial strength of Catholic Americans.
In the second generation American Catholics began to attain higher industrial positions and better occupations. All through the west, they were taking their place in the professional and business world. They were among the doctors and the lawyers, the editors and the teachers of the community. Sometimes they were the leading merchants as well as the leading politicians of their locality. (Humphrey J. Desmond, The A.P.A. Movement, 1912, pp. 9-10)
1920s saw the height of the Ku Klux Klan (the 1930s Depression saw its relative demise).
Richard Hofstadter has suggested that the movement was in large measure based on the reaction of the Protestant middle class against threats to its values and status. On one hand, the rise of the “robber barons”, the great millionaires and plutocrats of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, served to threaten the status of many old families, upper middle class Americans who had previously considered themselves the most important group in society. Their position was challenged by the appearance of the new millionaires who were able to outdo them in philanthropy and in their styles of life. On the other hand, this movement, like previous expressions of status politics, was opposed to immigration. It viewed the immigrant and the urban city machines based on immigrant support as a basic threat to American middle-class Protestant values. The Progressive movement had two scapegoats—the “plutocrat” millionaires, and the immigrants. (pp. 178f)
Lipset was able to write that protest movements arising out of economic depressions lack scapegoats. Scapegoats are attacked when people see a threat to “the American value system rather than its economy.”
And it is this concern with the protection of traditional American values that characterizes “status politics” as contrasted with the regard for jobs, cheap credit, or high farm prices, which have been the main emphasis of depression “class politics”. (179)
It is interesting to reflect on the above in the light of the more complex economic situation since 2016 and the dramatic change in economic hopes since the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.
The State of Tolerance in America
Depressingly, Lipset was able to write in 1955
The historical evidence, some of which has been cited above, indicates that, as compared to the citizens of a number of other countries, especially Great Britain and Scandinavia, Americans are not a tolerant people
While he’s responsible for his actions the reasons for those actions go beyond him.
Someone recently expressed some surprise that an Australian terrorist in New Zealand would be focussed on Europe in his “manifesto”. Jason Wilson sees nothing surprising here at all, however. All white nationalists everywhere talk about Europe and their European identity, he explains.
European identity and sense of grand sweep of European white people history is what they are all about.
Their fundamental idea is that white people, the descendants of Europeans, are being replaced in their home countries by non-white immigrants from non-European cultures.
He was acting for political motives. Those political motives were incubated in a movement and the context for that movement has been an increasingly Islamophobic discourse in the English speaking west in last 20 years or so since the “war on terror” started.
What is especially worrying, however, is that these views are not confined to invisible pockets of extremists. Far right extremists, says Wilson, have been making adept use of the internet and the cloak of irony to sneak their discourse under the radar and into the mainstream of political discussion. Fox news, of course, we know about, but also the vast Australian News Corp media. Prominent Australian right wing columnist, Andrew Bolt, last year was writing about the very same theme at the centre of Brenton Tarrant’s The Great Replacement –– the “threat” of a coming demographic replacement in Australia.
I had to look it up. Here is Bolt’s spiel; Tarrant could well have adapted it entirely from memory:
Notice that line about immigrants being responsible for traffic problems. Anyone who has kept an ear to Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison will know he regularly “connects with his voter base” by mentioning the same problems in the same problematic context, even since the Christchurch shooting.
Jason Wilson again:
In a moral sense obviously he is responsible for his actions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t look at the movement he’s come out of and the broader context of the societies that he’s been living in over the last number of years – to think about how we might understand those actions.
But it gets worse, so go listen to some music or read a good book if you’ve had enough. Recall how Tarrant described himself as an eco-fascist and how I made some point about Nazism having a strong ecological interest? Well, here is Jason Wilson’s most recent article:
Some see looming ecological collapse as an opportunity to re-order society along their preferred, frankly genocidal, lines.
The Nazi slogan “blood and soil” was coined by their foremost ecological thinker, Richard Walter Darré, who meant it to capture a mystical link between race and a particular territory.
In the decades since the rise of the modern environmental movement, the far right has continued its efforts to co-opt ecological thoughts and corrupt environmental movements
. . . . .
It’s hard to know exactly how many people are immersed in this milieu, but we have seen the damage just one man can do. What else might this ideology inspire?
More broadly, while conservatives (like Trump) are fixated on denialism, parts of the radical right not only acknowledge environmental collapse, but welcome it as an opportunity to re-order society along their preferred lines, and to cleanse the Earth of those they despise.
This makes a democratic, just, and global response to climate change all the more urgent. We must save our planet, and we must not create even the smallest opportunities for fascists.
I feel unwell. Time to go and watch a nice murder mystery on tv and see if once again the most innocent back-seat character at the beginning of the show in the end turns out to be the killer.
As for the suicide terrorism bit, it enabled me to see how personal despair, humiliation, hopelessness, — and end of real life on an individual level — is so unbearable that some prefer to swap their physical existence for a symbolic existence.
The key theme in the Galen Watts’ article is surely related:
A famous example of a social fact is found in Durkheim’s study, Suicide. In this book, Durkheim argues that the suicide rate of a country is not random, but rather reflects the degree of social cohesion within that society. He famously compares the suicide rate in Protestant and Catholic countries, concluding that the suicide rate in Protestant countries is higher because Protestantism encourages rugged individualism, while Catholicism fosters a form of collectivism.
What was so innovative about this theory is that it challenged long-standing assumptions about individual pathologies, which viewed these as mere byproducts of individual psychology. Adapting this theory to the contemporary era, we can say, according to Durkheim, the rate of suicide or mental illness in modern societies cannot be explained by merely appealing to individual psychology, but must also take into account macro conditions such as a society’s culture and institutions.
In other words, if more and more people feel disconnected and alienated from each other, this reveals something crucial about the nature of society.
That “rugged individualism” idea surely has a down side.
Then there was Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko bringing together many studies on terrorists and the process of radicalization in Friction, and I collated various posts on that book at How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us. One factor they point to is the need for belonging but also for status, recognition. Return again to the “symbolic life” preference to the real one spoken of by Hage.
If there is anything to Durkheim’s analysis, I suppose we have to see the prevalence of mass shootings in the U.S. as all part and parcel of whatever is also driving people to extremist groups such as the white nationalists, sovereign citizens, and so forth. And the erosion of civility? Intolerance for and even pushback against “political correctness”? Presumably facets of the same.
Australia is not so badly off as what we read is happening in the United States, thankfully.
But we’re not in a good place right now. But you knew that already.
Yes, time for me to finish blogging on what the research has shown about how radicalisation works, how people are recruited into terrorist organisations, religious cults, . . . even extreme sports . . . As Jason Burke (whose works I have blogged about here, most recently on “the new threat“) points out: it’s all the same mechanics.
Do not comment on this post unless you are prepared to stay to engage with possible alternative views and defend your own ideas in civil discourse. Angry and fly-by-nighter comments may be deleted.
Attacks like what occurred in Nice are almost always perceived by those who carry them out and who admire them as acts of personal redemption and collective salvation in the service of a world revolution. Again and again, we heard, among those who have been susceptible to ISIS’s message, that realizing something close to true justice on Earth, and a right to enter Paradise in the effort to achieve that, can only come “by the sword” and “under the sword.”
ISIS’s longtime aim of creating chaos among the civilian populations of its enemies, as outlined in the 2004 jihadi tract “The Management of Savagery/Chaos,” Idarat at-Tawahoush, a crucial source of ISIS ideology. According to this manual, acts of daring sacrificial violence—whether by individuals or small groups—can be used to undermine faith in the ability of governments in the West and the Middle East to provide security for their peoples, and to polarize Muslim and non-Muslims, or what ISIS regards as true believers and infidels. Amplified through the media, these attacks become an effective way to publicize, and possibly propagate, revolutionary change of the political, social, and moral order.
Rather than reflecting a movement in decline, then, the Nice attack might be better understood as a recalibration of long-endorsed tactics in the service of a constant, overriding strategy of world revolution. Even if ISIS loses all of its territory in Syria and Iraq, the global jihadi archipelago could continue to expand if the social and political conditions that have led to its emergence continue to persist.
That quotation is taken from Scott Atran’s article, ISIS: The Durability of Chaos, following the Nice attack. Why the petty criminal elements? Why the loners and youth of immigrants who feel isolated and unwelcome in their new homes? Do the Scott Atrans exculpate religion as a factor? Or do they in fact understand and explain its role all too well?
Answers to these questions are broached in the article and in past posts here.
Do not comment on this post unless you are prepared to stay to engage with possible alternative views and defend your own ideas in civil discourse. Angry and fly-by-nighter comments may be deleted.
I recently read an interesting news item about a group of elite veteran volunteers fighting ISIS in Syria. It was a story by Stewart Bell in Canada’s online National Post, A secretive unit of international veterans went on its first anti-ISIL mission last fall. Hours later, a Canadian was dead. The article reminded me of other stories about veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who on their return find they sorely miss the close bonds formed in high adrenalin war situations. One of those stories was of Afghan veterans who join bikie gangs to revive the same depth of close relationships. The National Post article nailed it this way:
But adjusting to non-military life was a struggle. Adrenaline sports like skydiving and motorcycles couldn’t replace the thrill of Afghanistan. “You miss it,” he said. “You miss it so much.”
There’s another motivation drawing in the volunteers:
In a BBC News video he [the American leader of the volunteer force] said he had come to Syria in late 2014 after seeing photos of ISIL atrocities, in particular a 9-year-old boy nailed to a cross. “I need to fight ISIS,” he said. “If it takes someone’s life, even if it takes my life, so be it. This is a worthy cause.”
It’s all very understandable.
It’s also a mirror of the reasons others from the West have gone to Syria to fight on the other side — for ISIS.
Abundant evidence demonstrates that many in the West become radicalised as a result of feeling disconnected from mainstream society. If military personnel returning from Afghanistan often find adjustment to normal life difficult, think how youth, especially a second generation of a Muslim community in a non-Muslim country, can all too often find themselves out of place. Such people are easy targets for idealistic groups that offer a new family relationship. Add to that the moral outrage over what they have seen of death, maiming, torture and destruction in the Middle East, or just Syria alone ….
I have now posted on the first part ofFriction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko. This section has covered the how individuals are radicalised. Future posts will look at how groups move towards extremism, and then how entire nations can likewise go in that ugly direction.
What follows will be as obvious as our common humanity to many readers. To others it may appear to be a spineless excuse for idiocy and criminality. How to explain such contrary perspectives is itself an interesting question to explore. But if you are curious as to what mechanisms open the doorway for some people to join radical activists and/or religious cults then stick with the post or scroll down towards its latter half.
I kid you not. Muslims themselves do not really understand how people become radicalised — because it’s such a foreign concept to mainstream Islam and mainstream Muslims.
The filmTug of War (link is to trailer but be sure to check the interviews beyond the trailer) has been criticized for not offering an answer to the question of prevention but even the question of how it happens seems to elude many, both Muslims and non-Muslims. The latter very often simplistically blame the Quran and the Muslim religion generally, but most Muslims do not become violent. Others equally simplistically blame various grievances, but there are many more aggrieved persons in the world than violent ones.
One theme that has repeatedly surfaced in my readings of religious and other forms of extremism is of individuals finding themselves cut adrift from conventional moorings: a respected place in society, a family, a career, a home. Radicalisation is costly and those of us focused on job and family are not going to take time to explore an alternative option that would mean leaving them behind. We are likely to consider the very idea as crazy or self-indulgent. (See below: Radicalisation to Escape Disconnection)
For many individuals, the path to radicalization is blocked by prior routines and responsibilities. Supporting a family, building a career, and attachments to friends and neighbors are all jeopardized by committing time and energy to political activism; joining an illegal and dangerous organization costs even more. But what if everyday commitments and attachments are lost? Perhaps parents die suddenly or a spouse unexpectedly departs. Or an individual moves from home to a remote city or a foreign country and has to begin again with no social ties and few resources. Or civil war ravages the country, destroying families, jobs, and social networks; streets become dangerous, and fear follows people home. Disconnected from everyday routines and relationships, an individual becomes an easy prospect for any group that offers friendship and security. If the new group comes with an ideology, new ideas may be embraced along with new friends.
McCauley, Clark; Moskalenko, Sophia (2011-02-02). Friction: How Radicalization Happens to Them and Us (Kindle Locations 1585-1592). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.
To continue an important observation introduced above — not everyone who goes through experiences that open one to a radical questioning of one’s belief system and an ability to embrace quite new ideas become radicalised.
As for the other mechanisms they have discussed they provide two case studies, one from late nineteenth century Russia and the other a modern contemporary, and introduce some of the psychological studies that help us understand the behaviour.
In 1870s Russia students who moved to a major centre to study found themselves as part of a “brotherhood”, a new family, as a result of radical students setting up communes to provide their peers with food, shelter and to assist them with any other needs that might arise. They were “friends of humanity”, always willing to respond to fellow students whenever they found themselves in a difficulty.
McCauley and Moskalenko introduce readers to “Vanechka” (Sophia Andreevna Ivanova). The information they provide derives from her autobiography. She lived in a provincial town, one of ten children, and both her parents died by the time she was sixteen. Having an idealised view of Moscow and places of higher learning, Vanechka asked one of her brothers to help her move to Moscow where she hoped to pursue a higher education. Unfortunately disappointments followed. Two other brothers of hers who had been in Moscow were forced to leave as a result of work commitments and poor health, leaving her completely alone in a big unfriendly city with no money and no place to live. She had no education or skills, and her job opportunities were limited.
One job she found required twelve hour days for pay that was inadequate to cover both rent and food. Vanechka jumped when an opportunity to work in a printing workshop was opened to her. Books had long been her love. The workshop happened to belong to Myshkin, a revolutionary, and had a secret room where revolutionary tracts and literature were printed, although Vanechka knew nothing of this at first.
Two women in the workshop who befriended Vanechka were “typical nihilists” and students of the day — short hair, carelessly dressed, stern looks — and over time they came to trust Vanechka enough to work in the secret room. Such a trust was, of course, a great honour. When her coworkers learned of her financial plight they organised a commune in the printery using its spare rooms for a common pool of money, food, clothes, and other necessities. Other revolutionaries would be taken in from time to time as needed (as when they were hiding from police). Vanechka was part of the circle.
Her boss, Myshkin, did take her aside to ask if she understood the danger of being associated with people but considering herself such an insignificant person in the larger group she scoffed at the idea that the authorities would ever want to arrest her.
Vanechka was arrested, however, and jailed, when the police shut down the printery. Under interrogation she found herself following the advice her friends had given her — to be prepared for anything to to say nothing. Luckily her brother was able to arrange for her release but then she found herself once more without social supports. Her friends all remained in jail and she was once again without a job, without an income, without a place to stay.
She decided to move to St Petersburg where her friends were awaiting trial. At least she could visit them in prison. There she found another job in a printery and once again found friends among radical supporters of jailed comrades.
Her new friends, again radicals, gave Vanechka the support she needed and in return she found herself participating in their activist programs. She was arrested as part of a protest activity and sentenced to Siberian exile.
She escaped, and soon afterwards rose to the exclusive ranks of the executive committee of the revolutionary group People’s Will and used her experience to organise and run an underground printing press. She married the convicted terrorist Kvyatkovksi. When he was sentenced to death she begged the court to be given the same sentence with him but was instead given four years hard labour. She died in Moscow in 1927.
One can readily identify the moments of breakdown of stable supports in Vanechka’s life, and where her life’s path was directed to radical opposition to the State.
The contemporary case-study in this chapter is Muhammad Bouyeri, the murderer of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh who produced Submission, a film critical of Islam. Bouyeri left a letter for Ayaan Hirsi Ali stabbed to his chest. I won’t repeat Bouyeri’s story here except to list key “unfreezing” disconnections in his own life:
seven months in jail for a non-religious crime
the death of his mother (to whom he was very close) about the same time
his subsequent attempt at finding meaning in an idealistic project to build youth centres came to nought, partly as a result of his own deepening fundamentalism
his loss of job
Nothing predestined Bouyeri to become a blood-stained terrorist. His life could well have taken another fork in the road. The point is, his journey did come to a fork that not everyone experiences, and when we do, so much depends upon those who are around to give us a new direction.
We must remember an old adage: no one joins a “dangerous cult” or a “terrorist cell.” Converts invariably see the act of joining in positive terms, as beneficial for both themselves, their society, and the cosmos (literally), and the process is far more gradual than it appears. — (Dawson 2010, p. 7)
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Christian sects like the Mormons, Pentecostals and Jehovah’s Witnesses were known to draw most of their followers from poor or underprivileged sectors of society. So it was easy to explain their attraction as offering converts a reversal of their fortunes: from being nobodies to being “the elect”. In the apocalyptic scenarios they all preached, those who were the least in this world would become the first in the next. The meek were to inherit the earth. The rich and powerful of this world would be brought down and the poor exalted.
(Similarly with Palestinian terrorist groups: the most obvious explanation appeared for many to be that they preferred a rich symbolic life, a reward of honour in the memory of their people, to continuing to be subject to extreme economic hardships and political and personal humiliation.)
The above explanation for why Christian cults exercised such a strong pull on the “lower classes” was overturned in the 1960s and 70s with the emergence of a plethora of New Religious Movements (NRMs) — or cults — that attracted youth from well-to-do families, highly educated, with excellent career prospects, and generally of secular upbringings. Even established Christian cults like the Mormons were also found to be becoming increasingly populated by members belonging to the higher socio-economic rungs of society.
So what was going on?
New theories of “relative deprivation” emerged in the literature. Perhaps people were attracted not because of the objective fact of their lower economic and social status, but because they perceived that they were disadvantaged in some way, whatever their real status. And maybe the perceived lack was not only economic, but also moral, social opportunities, psychological . . . .
The idea of relative deprivation seems very plausible; in many ways it conforms to our personal experience. But in the end it allows for too much interpretive flexibility. Almost any action could be explained by reference to some hypothesized sense of lack of respect, inadequate love, or ethical frustration. The theory explains everything and yet nothing because it cannot discriminate effectively between those who think this way and those who choose to act on their perception in some radical way, especially becoming violent. (Dawson 2010, p. 5)
Compare those joining new cults in the 60s and 70s with the 9/11 hijackers. The latter were also from well-adjusted middle class families. They were not oppressed or impoverished in any conventional sense. They had not been particularly religious. They had good opportunities to do well in careers in many countries.
An NYPD report Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat concluded that most individuals who had been involved in terrorist plots had had quite unremarkable backgrounds, no criminal history, ordinary jobs and lived ordinary lives. They were fluent in English, were Western educated and familiar with the Western lifestyle. They had opportunities to do well in both their countries of origin and in the USA.
There is no clear profile of a potential terrorist and they are, like those who come to join religious cults, largely indistinguishable from anyone else.
“Converts to NRMs are more likely to have fewer and weaker social ties.”
Since cults are in conflict in significant ways with society, it stands to reason that they are more likely to draw their recruits from those who have “fewer social attachments” and consequently “lower stakes in conformity”.
This datum explains why it is so often the young (and students) who are attracted. “They can afford to experiment with alternative ways of living.”
“Converts also tend to have fewer and weaker ideological alignments”
As I have noted in recent posts, research shows that people with strong attachments to their mainstream faith (whether Christianity or Islam) are not likely to join cults or terror cells. It is the “unchurched”, those with weak, non-existent or troubled religious backgrounds, or the rootless “seekers”, who are the more likely to join cults.
But there is a balance. Complete loners or those with no interest at all in spiritual and religious questions are not likely to join.
What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? — Sam Harris, End of Faith, p. 129
Dr. Quintan Wiktorowicz takes a more nuanced view of what it takes to tip a person into a commitment to extremism. Wiktorowicz’s explanation might be worth noting as a counterbalance to Sam Harris’s fears since he is
one of America’s leading academics on the Muslim World,
an internationally recognized author and expert on national security engagement and counter-terrorism,
a developer of ground breaking counter-radicalization initiatives for the Intelligence Community and the Department of State,
a holder of two senior positions at the White House as driver of efforts to advance national security partnerships and innovation at home and abroad.
This post follows on from two earlier ones addressing Wiktorowicz’s findings:
Recall that W’s case study is the now-banned British group, al-Muhajiroun. From Wikipedia:
Al-Muhajiroun (Arabic: المهاجرون; The Emigrants) is a banned Salafi jihaditerrorist organisation that was based in Britain and which has been linked to international terrorism, homophobia and antisemitism.The group operated in the United Kingdom from 14 January 1986 until the British Government announced an intended ban in August 2005. The group became notorious for its September 2002 conference, “The Magnificent 19”, praising the September 11, 2001 attacks. The group mutates periodically so as to evade the law; it then operates under aliases. It was proscribed under the UK Terrorism Act 2000 on 14 January 2010 together with four other organisations including Islam4UK, and again in 2014 as “Need4Khalifah”.
While reading Wiktorowicz’s study I was often struck by the similarities between such a political-religious extremist movement and what I know of cults in the “Christian world” — Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Branch Davidians, Wordwide Church of God, Moonies, and others. Of course there are many differences, too, but the patterns of what leads otherwise unsuspecting individuals to take an interest in “counter-cultural” groups and (seemingly bizarrely) leave the “normal” world to dedicate their lives to such “fanatics”.
In the previous post we saw what prompts persons to question their previously held beliefs and open themselves to radical alternatives, what factors lead some of those new inquirers take seriously and explore more deeply an extremist group and even to agree with its teachings.
We have also seen that people can take an interest in “fanatical” organisations, even sympathize with them and agree with their views, but never take the next step of actually joining them and living according to their dictates. That final step is taken by a still smaller subset. It means the person has decided to give up everything in “this life”, everything that most of us consider the fundamentals of a normal existence — possessions, family ties, perhaps even one’s own life.
“Religions may do more harm than good by telling people a life after death awaits them. In all probability, many terrorist attacks and other tragedies would not occur in the absence of that belief.” — HumanismByJoe.
However, serious research into the beliefs and lives of terrorist supporters reveals that common religious belief in an afterlife is far from sufficient to lead one to terrorist sympathies. Indeed, devout religiosity among Muslims correlates with rejection of terrorism. It is for most part the non-religious who are attracted to extremist movements. Their brand of religion is part of their “culturing” within the terrorist-sympathetic group.
What trips a person over that final line and into the extremist commitment?
Notice that Wiktorowicz finds that accepting beliefs or teachings of itself does not prompt people to give up “normal life” and be prepared to sacrifice all. Recall, further, that in the previous post Wiktorowicz even finds that Muslims in Britain who view themselves as quite devout are the least likely to be attracted to terrorist groups.
That final trip-wire is what Wiktorowicz labels “culturing”.
Even if religious seekers are exposed to al-Muhajiroun and accept Omar Bakri’s right to sacred authority, this alone is not enough to overcome the free rider dilemma. Seekers could attend lessons and learn about Islam without committing themselves to risky activism. In this manner, they could free-ride and reap the benefits of an Islamic education without incurring the costs and risks of commitment.
To understand why some individuals eventually commit themselves to the costs and risks outlined in chapter 1, we must understand movement “culturing,” or what activists term tarbiya (culturing in proper religious beliefs and behaviors). Al-Muhajiroun tries to draw seekers into religious lessons, where they can be cultured in the movement ideology. The ideology, in turn, emphasizes that the only way to achieve salvation and enter Paradise on Judgment Day is to follow the movement’s prescribed strategy, which includes high-risk activism.
Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 167). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Why do people join religious cults and extremist groups? What turns some people into “mindless fanatics”?
In the previous post we were introduced to Quintan Wiktorowicz’s Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West(2005) that explores the reasons people in Britain joined the now banned extremist group, Al-Muhajiroun. As I read his work I was struck by the overlaps with the experiences of many who join religious cults, including my own experience with the Worldwide Church of God.
At the time of writing the above news came through of a swathe of terrorist attacks in Jakarta, Indonesia. Having visited Indonesia fairly regularly over the past seven years, including the city of Solo that is regularly associated with concentrations of jihadist extremists, I have no problem agreeing with those specialist commentators who point out that most Indonesians have no time for Islamist extremism and violence. (Keep in mind that though Indonesia contains the world’s largest Muslim population it is the world’s third largest democracy.) But that’s no defence against the tiny handful who are drawn to terrorist organisations. So why are a tiny few drawn to what most people deplore?
Here is the question Wiktorowicz asks:
So why participate in the [extremist] movement? On the surface, the choice seems irrational: the risks are high and the guarantee of spiritual salvation is intangible and nonverifiable (i.e., there is no way to know whether those who follow al-Muhajiroun’s interpretation and die actually make it to Paradise). And there are plenty of less risky alternatives that guarantee the same spiritual outcome. This includes a plethora of less risky Islamic fundamentalist groups that share many of al-Muhajiroun’s ideological precepts. Is participation in the movement, then, the choice of the irrational?
Wiktorowicz, Quintan; Wiktorowicz, Quintan (2005-07-21). Radical Islam Rising: Muslim Extremism in the West (p. 206). Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Wiktorowicz’s answers are covered in chapters under the headings of
Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking
Credibility and Sacred Authority
Culturing and Commitment
Breaking those headings down a little . . . .
“Cognitive Openings and Religious Seeking” addresses a range of factors that act as wedges to open people’s minds to radical alternatives to their world views. Most people say “What? Get real!” Why do a few say “Mmm… Interesting…. Let me think a moment”?
Most of those who go this far come to their senses and quickly realize that the message they are confronting is bizarre or “wrong” after all. Only a few of the few take the next step and embark on a journey of “religious seeking” or other form of follow-up.
“Credibility and Sacred Authority” digs a little deeper and explores why some alternative world views are more enticing than others.
What extent of knowledge is demonstrated by the radically new source? How does the “character” of the new source stack up against alternatives? How does personality tilt the scales? What of the public persona of a key channeller of the new ideas?
“Culturing and Commitment” looks at why certain individuals go the final step and commit to dangerous or “fanatical” groups.
Of the few persons who take an interest in what most regard as “fanatical ideas” even fewer actually take the leap from intellectual agreement to jumping in knowing the sacrifice they are making and the world they are leaving behind. That final step is of particular interest but first things first. Why do a few of us become sincerely interested in the radical fringe ideas in the first place?